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As the first ray of sunshine reaches Donggou village in Beijing"s Miyun district, Yang Chenghai and his fellow villagers walk behind 14 mules, each laden with bricks, and make their way up a hill to a section of the Great Wall.
Winding along mountain ridges across northern China, the Great Wall, one of the world"s great wonders, was built between the 3rd century BC and the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The existing sections mostly date from that dynasty, with the Ming wall more than 8,800 kilometers long.
Preservation faces longterm challenges, as seen in the renovation of a 1 km section of the Great Wall north of Yang"s village that began at the start of this year.
Since the hillside paths are steep, animals are the only way to get bricks to the top. But a mule can only carry 12 wall bricks at a time, as each one weighs more than 10 kilograms.
Yang, 54, supports himself with a thick tree branch, following the mules on a rocky, muddy path.
To better preserve the wall"s historical and cultural values, the bricks are made according to their original format, material and craftsmanship.
After nearly an hour"s walk, a section of the Great Wall comes into sight, along with workers laying bricks. Some parts are overgrown with weeds, and some have already collapsed.
According to a survey, the remaining Great Wall sections in Beijing are 573 km long, of which 526 km are from the Ming Dynasty.
Zheng Baoyong, head of the district"s heritage management office, said Miyun is home to one-third of Beijing"s Great Wall sections. Due to human destruction and natural weathering, some parts of the Great Wall are damaged or have collapsed, and they are in urgent need of renovation.
The Great Wall, a symbol of China, is not just one wall, but many interconnected walls. Sections of earlier fortifications were joined together to form a united defense system against invasions from the north. It was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987.
In 2006, a regulation on Great Wall protection took effect. But repairs are difficult to complete, taking large amounts of manual labor and funding.
The bricks used for restoration are usually transported by vehicles to the foot of a hill, with mules then taking them up to the Great Wall. Workers have to carry the bricks by hand when a mule fails to climb a steep slope. Sometimes, mooring ropes and slide rails are also needed.
"It is a very difficult and dangerous project," said Zhang Baoru, who is in charge of the renovation work near Donggou. "We have around 50 workers now. Every day, they start their work at 5:30 am and do not stop until dark. It is hard to hire workers."
According to the Beijing Cultural Heritage Administration, the city government has invested a total of 374 million yuan ($54 million) on the renovation and protection of the Great Wall over the past 10 years.
"The Great Wall is a valuable historical and cultural heritage," said Xiu Haiqing, the Party chief of Donggou village. "Renovation is not easy, so more efforts should be made to better protect it."
Yang grew up at the foot of the Great Wall. He and his mules have repeated the journey to transport bricks more than 10 times a day for months.
"It is very hard, but I know it is a good thing to do," he said, letting the mules graze for a while before they go down the hill to pick up more bricks.